Jane Jacobs died today in Toronto. Jacobs was the author of the the incredible book The Death and Life of Great American Cities and one of the greatest urbanists of the last half-century. She originally wrote on Greenwich Village, her neighborhood in New York, but had moved to Canada during the Vietnam War not wanting to pay taxes to a government she strongly disagreed with. By the end of her life, she considered herself Canadian and also wrote widely on Canadian issues, including a book about the economic effects of Quebecois separatism (if you're interested, she thought everyone would survive just fine).
I don't think Jacobs' contributions to the American/Canadian city can be understated. In her epic battles with New York City planning czar Robert Moses, she showed what could be accomplished by the mobilization of regular people against the interests of totalitarian city political machines. The Death and Life forecasted the rise of urbanism 20 years before it happened and in many ways spawned many of the major theories of planning around today. You can't understand New Urbanism or Smart Growth with out understanding Jacobs.
Jacobs was also an accomplished economist. In fact, it has been suggested that her theories of import replacement should have earned her a Nobel prize. At least in part, her theories have helped speed the rise of economies like India and China that have learned to reduce their reliance on imports to drive economic development.
Personally, I feel that I learned from Jacobs' writing how to look at cities. Jacobs has a way of making you look beyond economic indicators to find the health of a neighborhood by looking at its people. It's a healthy reminder that even the poor can have good neighborhoods, even if the bankers don't realize it. Actually, my neighborhood, East Boston, is relatively poor but has low crime and a vibrant street life. It was Jane Jacobs who showed me how to look for that when I was choosing where to live.
All in all, pretty much everything Jacobs wrote is worth reading. My favorites are The Death and Life and Dark Age Ahead.